Peter Ormerod visits ZSL London Zoo - and finds himself challenged and enthralled
Zoos have come a long way since I was a child. Then - that is, the 1980s - the emphasis tended to be on the animals' funny ways and shapes; they were there for our amusement. Bar some exceptions, little thought was given to the broader context, and quite what it meant for these remarkable creatures to find themselves in provincial corners of drizzly England. As with the circuses of the time, the unthinking use of wild animals for entertainment was commonplace.
So any self-respecting zoo these days has to do things differently. And London Zoo certainly does. It impresses not only in its scope and breadth, but in its imagination, sense of purpose and general upkeep: not a square foot of this venerable institution feels tired, and most importantly of all, not a single animal seems unloved.
The zoo is run by the Zoological Society of London, a conservation charity; and while it is a visitor attraction of the highest order, at its heart is education. It's impossible to spend more than a few minutes on the vast site in Regent's Park without being persuaded of the urgent need to protect vital habitats. Every enclosure carries detailed information about how endangered its species are, and the man-made threats to their survival. The effect is chastening: it's one thing to see on television the calamitous effects of humans on wildlife, but coming face to face with such animals makes the unfolding tragedy feel yet more real.
This is not to say that a visit to London Zoo is in any way depressing. Above all, it's tremendously enjoyable, a colourful, mind-expanding, curiosity-fulfilling, horizon-broadening day out to delight anyone of any age. There is of course plenty to enthral children, but my wife and I are both in our 40s and found it a most rewarding visit.
Our day began with In with the Lemurs, in which the charming little critters are free to roam around the visiting humans; on our visit, the animals were huddled together in the spring sunshine. Then it was Rainforest Life, in which sloths sleep overhead, various primates scurry and great tortoises plod. The adjacent Nightlife brings visitors close to mysterious and rarely-seen creatures, including the almost supernatural-looking aye-aye. Then it's back outside to greet animals with which we are all rather more familiar: meerkats and otters.
Nearby is an array of striking African wildlife. There are the endearingly placid yet imposing giraffes and strikingly beautiful zebras, but perhaps the most remarkable to behold was a pack of African hunting dogs, which exuded a sense of mischievous menace as they frolicked and play-fought.
By now it was feeding time (for us, that is). It being a sunny Saturday, the place was packed. But the zoo's restaurant coped admirably with the numbers, thoughtfully organised to keep queues as short as possible. The food was better than might be expected from such an exercise in mass catering, but perhaps an organisation so keen to promote care for animals and the environment could do better with the sourcing of its meat, which meets no more than the Red Tractor standard, when one might expect free-range pork and organic produce. After a satisfying pizza and salad, we made our way to the nearby Penguin Beach, where the adorable waddlers and graceful swimmers seemed to having a marvellous afternoon.
Next up were the grandest, showpiece attractions. Tiger Territory is quite something, telling a sometimes heartbreaking story of a tiger's day while one of the magnificent cats prowls fearsomely; it is an awesome sight. Gorilla Kingdom is quite an epic experience in itself; few of the primates were visible on our visit, but feet away from one of our species' closest cousins proved quite moving. Most impressive of all though is Land of the Lions, a superbly conceived and exquisitely executed attraction which is pretty much worth the admission fee in itself. It transports visitors to India's vibrant Sasan Gir, complete with street food stalls, witty Bollywood-style posters, clanking railways, floral shrines and all. But delightful as it is, this spectacle is no match for the Asiatic lions themselves, their grace and grandeur quite spellbinding.
All that should be enough to constitute a packed day. But the zoo features much else besides: houses for reptiles and insects, an aquarium, the Butterfly Paradise and an assortment of other animals from around the world.
There is so much to commend about London Zoo. Endearing touches abound: it even uses its more antiquated buildings imaginatively, the Blackburn Pavilion bedecked with cod-Victorian silhouette portraits of the birds housed within, a recently built clinking and clanging mechanical clock at its entrance. There is a discussion to be had about the role of zoos in the 21st century (and the naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham has insightful thoughts on the matter), but London Zoo gives a strong impression that it understands this and presents a convincing case for itself. It bridges the gap between humans and animals in bold, bright and intelligent style. It certainly offers food for thought - but not at the expense of fun.
* ZSL London Zoo is open every day except Christmas day. Visit www.zsl.org for details.
* ZSL London Zoo is inviting children to become zookeepers this Easter - at Mini Keepers, a fun packed role-playing experience for junior animal lovers. From Saturday April 6 to Sunday April 21, youngsters will be able to step into the role of a zookeeper, during a packed Easter of immersive family events celebrating their work. Visit www.zsl.org for details.